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Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Short Peace

After Robot Carnival, Neo Tokyo and Memories, 2013’s Short Peace is Katsuhiro Otomo’s fourth and most recent foray into cinematic anime anthologies. Each of its four main sections are based on one of his early short manga, of which only A Farewell to Weapons has been translated into English, as part of the long out-of-print anthology Memories, the titular story of which was adapted into the 1995 anthology film of the same name’s segment Magnetic Rose.

Produced by studio Sunrise (since re-named as Bandai Namco Filmworks), Short Peace reunites Otomo with Magnetic Rose’s director Koji Morimoto, while also pulling in a varied collection of other anime talent. Otomo himself directs only one segment. Conceived as a multimedia project centred around the theme of “Japan”, the movie’s home blu-ray release was originally integrated with the side-scrolling PS3 game Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day, with a story by notorious game director Goichi Suda (Suda51), best known in the West for the No More Heroes franchise and 2012’s deranged Lollipop Chainsaw. Each animated segment is set during a different part of Japanese history, with three set in the past and one in the future. Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day was deliberately conceived to be the anthology’s representation of Japan’s “present”.

Unlike in Japan and Europe, Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day never received a physical release in the US. It was released digitally only on the Playstation Network, with the accompanying Short Peace anime film shorts available to download separately, also on PSN. Sentai Filmworks later secured the rights to a US blu-ray release, and even produced their own dub. Unfortunately the region A US blu-ray comes without the game, and therefore is an inferior, incomplete release when compared to the region-free UK version that this article features.

At the time of writing, the UK PS3 blu-ray remains available only on the secondhand market, whereas in the US, although the original pressing is impossible to find, Sentai plans a reprint/re-release later in 2022. Although a PS3 is required to play the UK version’s game, the movie will function on any blu-ray player. The UK version is sub-only, so dub enthusiasts have a reason to desire the US version instead. Short Peace is also currently available to stream on Sentai’s HIDIVE platform, though only in North America.

Opening (dir. Koji Morimoto — Memories, The Animatrix, Genius Party Beyond)

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but it all looks very sparkly and colourful in motion.

The extremely short opening sequence follows a young girl chasing a rabbit through a rapidly changing, dreamlike world full of bizarre imagery and lightning-quick transformations. It’s merely an appetiser with minimal substance — it looks cool, but is over very quickly. If anything, it reminds me a lot of Neo Tokyo’s surreal opening and closing sequences that also follow a young girl on a phantasmagorical journey. Atmospheric but insubstantial.

A cool sequence where the girl herself seems to transcend the boundaries of reality. Instead of the world shifting around her, as it had done previously, we see her shift into multiple different versions of herself.

Possessions (dir. Shuhei Morita — Tokyo Ghoul, Freedom), 14 mins

No wonder the spirits are grumpy, they must all have gotten soaked during the recent rain shower.

The first “proper” segment, Possessions, was nominated for best animated short at the 86th Academy Awards. A mostly wordless tale, it follows a lone 18th century traveller who seeks shelter from a storm in a seemingly abandoned forest shrine. Inside, he falls asleep, later awakening in a strange room to be confronted by initially terrifying spirits. The traveller turns out to be master craftsman, and upon opening his very cool box of materials, sets about repairing every single googly-eyed spirit’s ripped paper umbrella. Delighted, the spirits leave him be.

Next, he is haunted by a woman’s spirit who appears as a two-dimensional image on the room’s paper screen walls. He’s surrounded by billowing fabrics that he seizes and sews into a beautiful cloth. Finally, he finds himself deluged by a tsunami of ancient, broken and discarded objects that form into the shape of a dragon. By standing steadfast and calm, he endures through his fear, and is rewarded.

Bold of the movie to feture a needlework tutorial so prominently.

Possessions seems to be a fable about wastefulness, about the joy of repairing broken objects, of making do and mending. The unnamed traveller pities the discarded spirits, and expends his materials and skills to help them. His selflessness, skill and creativity keeps him safe from any ill intentions the spirits may have demonstrated towards a less sympathetic interloper.

Although Possessions is animated in 3D CG, it’s a far cry from the poor implementation of the technology in such cheap and nasty later TV anime as Berserk (2016) or EX-ARM (2021). Smooth, vibrant and expressive, it exhibits a valid future for the integration of CG into anime that perhaps wouldn’t horrify fans of more traditional 2D animation.

Aww, he’s not all that scary really.

I do particularly like the goofiness of the hyper-detailed junk dragon. I can’t imagine how painstaking that must have been to animate. Let’s be real — this was made with a much larger time and resource budget than the average TV anime, so I don’t expect moving images of this calibre to become commonplace. Mysterious yet also beguilingly amusing, Possessions makes for an excellent start to the quartet of stories proper.

Combustible (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo — Akira, Steamboy, Memories), 13 mins

Despair in her soul and fire in her eyes.

Otomo’s sole directorial contribution to the anthology is the stylistically unusual Combustible. In Edo period Japan (sometime between 1603 and 1867), the young upper class woman Owaka dreads her upcoming arranged marriage. Instead, she pines for her rebellious childhood friend and neightbour Matsukichi who defied his family and was disinherited by his father. Matsukichi is a fireman, a profession whose methods have changed significantly in the past few centuries.

As anyone who has seen Keiichi Hara’s historical fantasy/biopic Miss Hokusai will know, fires were commonplace in the Edo period, with fragile wooden and paper houses that could burst into flames at the smallest provocation. With the densely packed population and narrow streets, one house fire could easily spread from one adjacent building to the next, burning embers floating on the wind a risk even to houses further away. Armies of firemen would respond to the city-wide alarm bells and flock to the buildings adjacent to the burning one, and swiftly demolish them to prevent spread. There were no pressurised water-ejecting fire engines back then! Their efficient, brutal, destructive task complete, the fire would soon exhaust its fuel.

Maybe you should have just got married, honey.

One evening, alone in her room, miserably regarding her beautiful wedding kimono as the harbinger of an empty life as a dutiful wife of nobility, Owaka accidentally ignites a paper fan on a standing paper lamp. Initially horrified, she freezes — and then we see her thoughts plainly reflected on her face. If I do nothing, then this whole place will burn, my kimono and my obligations with it. And perhaps my beloved Matsukichi the fireman will come.

Unfortunately for her, the course of true love does not run smoothly, not when unpredictable fire is involved, and Owaka’s desire to escape her social obligations leads to tragedy and widespread destruction.

Combustible does not begin at all like a standard Otomo story. First it appears like a static wall scroll, depicting a prosperous harbour city. Slowly, the view pans horizontally across streets and buildings, the focus gradually becoming more intimate until we arive at Owaka’s garden. The artwork looks very traditional, and the character designs like from centuries-old Japanese wood-block prints. However, as the focus becomes even more personal, and we enter Owaka’s house, the previously prominent picture borders darken and fade, as the human characters become more of a focal point than the surrounding city.

Edo (Tokyo) is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.

Then when the fire ignites and the house erupts into a flaming conflagration, the tone and focus changes to that of a disaster epic, as we see the battle against the inferno from Matsukichi’s perspective. Otomo’s true colours and intentions are then revealed, with yet more explosions and destruction. That man certainly has a fixation. It’s beautiful, yet feels distant. It’s far from the most emotionally engaging of the four shorts. It isn’t as entertaining as Neo Tokyo’s Construction Cancellation Order, nor as memorable as MemoriesCannon Fodder.

Gambo (dir. Hiroaki Ando — Ajin, Five Numbers!), 13 mins

I like the way her expression captures her deep despair.

Set at the closing of the Sengoku period, towards the end of the 16th century, Gambo is about a fearsome white bear who appears to be some kind of emissary of the gods. In this grim feudal setting, a remote village has been terrorised by a fearsome red oni (Japanese demon) who steals away the village women. The chief offers a female villager to the oni every night in the hope the rest of the people remain safe, but unfortunately only a single young girl remains.

A wandering Christian samurai happens upon the village, and following a recent massacre, the village chief begs for assistance in defending the village against the oni. The one surviving girl wanders into the forest and encounters Gambo as he peacefully drinks from the local stream. Terrifed, she is frozen as the enormous bear approaches.

Aww. He’s like a big, monstrously strong teddy bear.

However the bear means her no harm, they quickly bond, and she asks him for help. The gentle giant understands, and leaves in search of the evil oni. He finds what appears to be the wreckage of a spacecraft, and inside it, in one of the most disturbing anime scenes I’ve ever witnessed, one of the village women, naked but with an unnaturally swollen abdomen, the skin stretched translucent, with multiple writhing oni babies moments from erupting out of her body. She begs Gambo for death. Gambo obliges, and faces the wrath of the hideous, enraged oni.

Their subsequent fight, as witnessed by the girl and then eventually the samurai (who doesn’t do very much, to be fair), is brutal and bloody, and for much of the fight, Gambo seems outclassed by his monstrous opponent. Of all the shorts, this may be the most interesting. Very little is offered in the way of explanation, everything about the setting must be inferred from the minimal dialogue and contextual clues. Did the oni impregnate all of the women he stole? Are there now hordes of oni children rampaging around the woods? Is that how oni normally reproduce? (Shades of Goblin Slayer there…) Is Gambo really supernaturally powerful?

Heeeeeere’s babydaddy!

Gambo reminds me a lot of the 2000AD comic strip Shako, a particularly gruesome tale where the eponymous polar bear gets to messily eviscerate and maim a succession of CIA and KGB agents desperate to retrieve the secret biological weapon he had swallowed. It is set in the present day, but the concept of a smart, powerful bear defeating his enemies in brutal combat is similar. Anyway, Gambo is a cool concept with at times beautiful aesthetics, though the oni himself is decidedly loathesome in appearance.

A Farewell to Weapons (dir. Hajime Katoki — Gundam), 26 mins

Set to deliberately cheesy, upbeat US-style power rock, the intro sequence is pretty cool, and evocative of any number of jingoistic, pro-military American movies.

The director of the longest segment is a mecha designer on multiple Gundam shows, and it’s obvious why he was chosen to helm this adaptation of Otomo’s 1970s short manga A Farewell to Arms. Rather than a direct homage to the Ernest Hemingway classic of the same name, this story is set sometime in the relatively near future, following the conclusion of a third world war. Tokyo has been devastated and lies in ruins. A group of four soldiers infiltrate a section of ruined city with the purpose of decommisioning a warhead secreted underground there. Unfortunately, they are met with significant resistance, an automated armored tank they call a “GONK”.

The leader of the small troop.

There follows an intricate and intense battle between human and machine, utilising drones, lasers, traps, automatic weapons, explosives and deception. We don’t get that much of a feel for the individual characters, and they refer to each other only by their callsigns. As can be expected, lots of things explode.

The GONK is temporarily incapacitated. It is otherwise relentless and nigh-invincible.

Terrifying in its mindless efficiency, the GONK is a formidable opponent. Ruthless and indefatigable, it relentlessly pursues its attackers and defends its territory. The men, despite their clever tactics, are no match for it. One man survives only due to blind luck, and the fact that without his fancy mech-suit and dog-tags, he’s classed as a non-combatant, completely harmless and therefore not worth even bothering with. Not even when he chases after the tank, stark naked, carrying a nuclear warhead. Once again, Otomo leans heavily into absurdity to get his point across.

This is not standard military operating procedure for the handling of nuclear fissile weapons.

The mecha design is exceptional — the GONK is functional and efficient, and the mens’ mecha suits are convincing applications of real world technology. The use of drones in warfare makes the story even more prescient, considering the original is now over 40 years old. This is probably the most stereotypical “anime” segment, and probably the most entertaining.

Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day

Do you have a clue what’s going on here? No? You and me both.

Finally, I won’t dwell very long on the game aspect, primarily because I was crap at it. It’s a fast-paced 2D runner/shoot-em-up where titular character Ranko Tsukigime runs through various locales, left-to-right, while being chased by ghostly monstrosities. She must fight monsters in her way and build up score multipliers that allow her to kill more enemies at a time, and slow the progression of her pursuers. I’m just not that good at games that require twitchy reflexes, nor do I have the time or the motivation to refine said reflexes. Apparently there’s about 20 minutes of further animation footage locked behind game progression, but I don’t feel engaged enough to get good enough to unlock it all. It’s a modestly pleasant diversion, but I only played it for about half an hour and decided I had enough.

Looks kind of like a shot from Ikaruga here…

Short Peace is definitely worth checking out if you’re an Otomo fan, especially if you enjoyed any of the previous three anime anthologies he’d contributed to previously. It’s a very small genre of anime, there’s only a few other non-Otomo examples available in the West. Other examples that spring to mind are Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, plus the more recent Modest Heroes and Flavors of Youth. I’ll probably get around to looking at them eventually.

Short Peace
Directed by: Koji Morimoto, Shuhei Morita, Katsuhito Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki
Production studio: Sunrise
Japanese cinematic release: July 20, 2013
Japanese PS3/blu-ray release: January 16, 2014
UK PS3/blu-ray release: April 18, 2014 (Bandai Namco Games)
US Blu-ray release: August 5th, 2014, re-released August 9th 2022 (Sentai)
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio is US-only
Runtime: 68 minutes
Age Rating: PEGI 16

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